Today’s Gospel presents a dramatic and memorable scene.
A poor woman is presented to the Lord Jesus as being a sinner- an adulterer, and this presentation is a set up- meant, it seems, not simply intended to humiliate the poor woman, but as a test of the Lord Jesus- the test being in regards to his knowledge of the Law of Moses.
The adultery of the woman is being used to teach not only her a lesson, but teach Christ a lesson about the Law as well.
The Law of Moses was the Law applied to all Israelites, it is presented in the scriptures as having divine origin and sanction, and as such, transgression against the Law of Moses were understood to be not just civil matters, but of as an affront to God. The Law of Moses presented to the Israelite, not just ideals towards which they should aspire, or a code regulating political, cultural, and economic realities, but the will of Almighty God!
In terms of the Law of Moses adultery was an offense that merited death and this is the judgment the crowd is looking for from the Lord Jesus. The crowd believes that if Christ’s judgment corresponds to the sentence of death they believe the Law of Moses demands, then, his sentence will prove his righteousness.
Christ, who is righteous, and as God, knows the Law of Moses better than the greatest scholars of the Israelites (remember, Christ, who is God, is the giver of the Law) recognizes the objectivity of the woman’s offense against God, but does not condemn her to death- the sentence, according to the Law, that she deserves.
Note: Christ is not in this text “affirming the woman as she is” or sanctioning adultery, instead he makes a point, a serious, theological point, that does not so much allow the woman to evade the consequences of her sin, but insists that the predicament the woman faces is universal, not just particular. All are sinners and as sinners what we all deserve, is condemnation.
If the woman is deserving of condemnation for her adultery is not also the crowd deserving of the same for its self-righteousness and blood lust?
What then is God to do about this situation? A situation in which all are sinners and all are deserving of condemnation.
Christ gestures towards what God will do in his response to the woman- offering her, not the condemnation she deserves, but the forgiveness that she needs.
This is Christ’s lesson. Not the lesson the crowd or the adulterous woman expected. But it is the lesson that they learned.
This text from the Gospel of John, so beautiful and terrifying, is meant as an anticipation and interpretation of the cross.
The cross represents where our sinful tendencies take us, what our refusals of God ultimately become. The potential of sin, or our refusals of God, manifested in the cross, is within each and every one of us.
What did humanity prove it deserved because of the cross?
The answer is condemnation.
The sinful tendencies within us that inevitably manifest itself in our refusals of God, refusals of which the cross is the example par excellence, place us all in the company of the adulterous woman and the crowd that sought, in its cruelty, to condemn her.
None of us have any business casting stones, unless we would cast those stones upon ourselves.
God in Christ’s response to the cross is as uncanny and mysterious as his response to the adulterous woman. He recognizes the cross for what it is, an action worthy of condemnation, but instead of giving us what we deserve for perpetrating such a sacrilege, he forgives us.
Giving us not what we deserve, but what we need the most- his forgiveness.
This is what it means to say the story of the adulterous woman anticipates and interprets the cross.
Holy Week is now just days away. Next Sunday, the Church will commemorate Palm Sunday, with the proclamation of the great Gospel of the Lord’s Passion. It is with the offering of Mass on Palm Sunday, that Holy Week will then begin.
Holy Week is meant as an opportunity through which we immerse ourselves into the meaning of the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus.
Holy Week will culminate in the tremendous surprise of the Lord Jesus’ resurrection, but we cannot rejoice in that surprise, without appreciating the surprising, undeserved, and unexpected offer of grace that Christ offers us from his cross.
If we are willing to immerse ourselves into the cross during Holy Week, then we will be provoked to a humble acknowledgment of what our refusals of Christ, our refusals of love do. Though we cannot harm Christ, we can hurt those whom Christ loves. What do we deserve for our refusals of Christ? What do we deserve for our refusals to love?
Whatever we deserve, Christ reveals on the cross that he is willing to give to us, precisely the same grace he extended to the adulterous woman- forgiveness. Christ is willing to give to us, certainly not what we deserve, but that which we most desperately need.
That is the lesson of the Gospel.
And it is the lesson of the Cross of Christ.
Is it a lesson that we are willing to learn.